Edina's Sarah Nielsen was still mulling her college hockey options last fall when she received word that two of her biggest rivals had decided to accept scholarship offers from Penn State.
For Nielsen, a smooth-skating, two-way forward, the commitments by Laura Bowman and Amy Petersen -- Minnetonka's leading scorers and veterans of the Skippers' back-to-back Class 2A championship teams -- to a fledgling program trying to build a national reputation helped convince her to take the same leap.
"I had been thinking about Penn State and a few other schools, but when I heard that they committed there, I thought, 'This could be a really good thing,'" Nielsen said. "I respect them so much that I knew I wanted to be a part of it when I heard they were going there."
Forging a path
There is virtually no hockey history at Penn State. The women's program is in its inaugural season, a member of the CHA (College Hockey America) Conference. The Nittany Lions are about where one would expect a first-year program to be: last in the conference with one league victory. Their overall record is 7-14-1.
But it's Penn State's future, not its present, that appealed to all three players.
"It's exciting to be a part of developing something from barely anything," said Bowman, who leads top-ranked Minnetonka in goals scored with 16. "They've really made the commitment to hockey."
Petersen, who has played on the same line with Bowman for as long as she's been playing hockey, concurred. Their unspoken bond, a big reason for their success on the ice, was evident in their decision.
"Laura and I knew of each others' [college] options, but we came to our decision to go to Penn State on our own," Peterson said. "It was pretty cool when we told each other that we had decided to go there. We'll have the chance to make our own traditions and write our own history."
Few girls' hockey rivalries in the state match the one between Lake Conference foes Edina and Minnetonka. Starting at the youth levels, the programs play each other so frequently that there is little one doesn't know about the other.
Recently, Minnetonka has won consecutive Class 2A championships while Edina has played in four 2A tournaments in a row, finishing as the runners-up in 2010 and 2011.
The inter-school battle reached a high point in 2011, when Petersen scored in overtime to give Minnetonka a 3-2 victory over Edina in the state championship game.
In three meetings since that epic contest, Minnetonka has won twice -- including a 1-0 overtime victory on Jan. 8 -- with one tie.
For the high stakes involved whenever the teams meet, the battles command more respect than anything else.
"It's a game we always circle and I would love to finally beat them, but it's just a lot of fun to play them," Nielsen said. "They're so competitive and so respectful. It's always a close game."
All three players agree that the mutual respect carries over to each other.
"Sarah and I went to a national camp together last summer and we became pretty good friends," Bowman said. "She's very strong and very physical and knows how to play the game. I was excited when Amy and I decided on Penn State and even more excited when I heard Sarah was going there."
Unless they meet again in the state tournament in February, their last game as opponents will be Saturday at Edina's Braemar Arena.
As usual, their competitive natures will be at the forefront, particularly since both are among the top five teams in the state -- Edina is the fifth-ranked team in Class 2A -- but all admit there might be a little more to think about if they come up against each other.
"I want to win, so if I get the chance to go up against Sarah, I might rub her out, but there is no way I'd hit her hard," Bowman said. "We're going to need her next year."